Finding old games
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Letters to the Editor
Eulogy: Black Vienna
When I first discovered German games, I went through a phase I’m sure will be familiar to many— a spell of voraciously reading anything and everything I could about German games. At the time, there was little more than The Game Cabinet available, so I read through it— the reviews, translations for games of interest, and best of all the old issues of Sumo— anything to get more information with which to create a solid wish list. And then, slowly but surely, I filled items from my wish list.
But that wasn’t enough. I started taking chances on more obscure games, new games, games that didn’t have English translations— anything that seemed to be of interest. But, not surprisingly, for most of the older games for which information was scarce or non-existent there was good reason. They weren’t terribly interesting games. But I’m persistent, and so I continued to give obscure games a shot.
Then, in 1999, I made a trade with someone. A turkey swap— mostly games I didn’t want for games that person no longer cared for. One of those games was Black Vienna, a game that had slipped onto his trade pile for lack of a translation. It was not the most prepossessing game. While the packaging is particularly nice, the components are fairly simple: two small decks of cards and forty large wooden coins. The author, Gilbert Obermair, has a fairly small set of published games, and the only one that I’d played previously (Bremer Stadtmusikanten) hit my trade pile after the one playing. Finally, the publisher (Franckh, the company now known as Kosmos) was most notable at the time for beautifully produced but uninspiring games.
Still, I managed a translation, and we gave the game a play. It is a deduction game, in the tradition of Clue or Sleuth, with a simple set of rules. There are 27 suspects, 3 of whom are actually guilty. The deck of suspect cards is shuffled, with the three guilty parties set aside and the remainder distributed among the players. There are 36 accusation cards, each of which lists three suspects. Each turn, one player chooses one of a limited number of accusation cards available, placing it in front of another player. That player puts one coin on the card for each matching suspect card in their hand. They then get the opportunity to make the next accusation. Eventually, someone makes an attempt to name the three guilty parties; each game can be played individually, or a set of scoring rules can be used to score multiple games, as preferred.
So why is it so engaging? First and foremost, as with Code 777 everyone except the person answering the accusation is receiving information simultaneously. This keeps everyone involved in the game but at the same time nearly all the information remains in play, so someone can even take over mid-game and play reasonably or watch and make their own deductions. Having the player who responds to an accusation make the next accusation also adds significantly to the game, and reasonably balances the inherent penalty in giving away information. Finally, the game is comparable in complexity to Clue, and is therefore a good fit for a fairly wide audience.
The game does have one minor problem: as each suspect is only represented 4 times on the accusation cards, it is entirely possible to reach a position wherein you cannot under any circumstances solve the mystery. There are a couple of possible approaches to this problem. It can be ignored, on the assumption that player actions— basically, the accusations each player chooses to make— provide sufficient information to make a reasonable guess. Or as Peter Sarrett has suggested, you can allow a player attempting to solve the case to first make a free accusation of their choosing [an idea lifted from Sleuth — ed.]. Either is reasonable; I’d recommend whichever solution the players prefer.
Black Vienna is one of the more difficult German games to find; I understand that only a couple of copies were to be found at Essen this year, significantly fewer than for such rarities as Energie Poker or Ave Caesar. But it’s worth the effort; nearly everyone to whom I’ve introduced the game has really enjoyed it, many so much so as to track down their own copies. While it will never be my favorite game— the deduction game genre isn’t my favorite— Black Vienna has earned a permanent place on my gaming shelf, and a regular appearance on my gaming table.
Eulogy is a recurring feature discussing good games that are no longer in print.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)